Chances are better than excellent that no matter how devoted a student of thoroughbred racing you are, you cannot recall the winner of the 1975 Suffolk County Handicap. A name like the Suffolk County Handicap has a fine old ring. It conjures up Currier and Ives prints, and one can imagine clubmen in oak-paneled rooms debating over brandy and cigars whether the Whitneys or Vanderbilts have won more Suffolk Countys. Sadly, the only Suffolk County ever contested occurred last Oct. 5 and, since no one banged pots and pans for its continuation, the race has not been renewed. That's a shame because a horse named Proud Delta won the Suffolk County and she has done the race's name, well, proud. From that day her reputation has grown. Slowly. Very, very slowly. But that is the way with fillies and mares, for rarely do they attract national notice. Ruffian was a shining exception.
Last Saturday Proud Delta appeared between motorcycles and Muhammad Ali on CBS-TV and thrust her head into the sun by winning the $108,200 Beldame at Belmont Park by three convincing lengths over the best field of fillies and mares to contest a Beldame in a decade. When it comes to determining championships for female racers the Beldame is usually a solid indicator. Since 1960 Beldame winners have been named the champion 3-year-old or handicap mare 11 times. In any season it is a grand race to win, and again this year the event was significant.
Just before the race Jorge Velasquez, the 29-year-old rider of the 4-year-old Proud Delta, walked into the paddock with a stern, forbidding look. Normally Velasquez smiles and goes about things calmly, but before the Beldame he was slapping his whip hard against his white riding breeches, a portrait in concentration. In the race were a couple of vaunted 3-year-olds, the undefeated (7 for 7) Revidere and Optimistic Gal, the winner of nine stakes and more than $600,000. The Beldame was being touted as a duel between the two. "It's no match race," Velasquez had said two days before. "It's no damned match race. I can win it."
Since late August, Velasquez has been in excellent form, with 42 wins in 32 days. Although Angel Cordero, Eddie Maple and Ron Turcotte get far more publicity than Velasquez, Jorge is the leading New York rider, and that state's racing year is a true test. Its major league season is now the longest anywhere, beginning as it does on Jan. 2 and continuing like a berserk carousel through Dec. 31. Over the last five years Velasquez has ridden more winners in New York than any other jockey.
Bad trainers give Velasquez instructions. Good trainers give him virtually none. Peter Howe, the handsome 37-year-old in charge of Proud Delta, sensed that Velasquez was in an angry mood before the Beldame, and all Howe did was remind the jockey of the fact that Proud Delta had the outside position in the field of eight and that the last time she had drawn an outside post position she had broken crooked and toward the inside. "I remember, Mr. Howe," said Velasquez.
There were reasons, of course, why Revidere and Optimistic Gal were strong betting choices over Proud Delta. Revidere is a dead-game filly who can be passed in the stretch, then fight her way back to regain every inch she has lost. In the Coaching Club American Oaks in June, Optimistic Gal had her headed near the finish but Revidere dug in and won by half a length. She has raced only once outside New York.
Optimistic Gal, on the other hand, is a little like Laura, the face you see on the train that is passing through. Basically a front-runner, she has won stakes at Saratoga, Belmont, Laurel, Keeneland, Churchill Downs and Delaware Park. She, too, is durable and has been managed well by her owner, Diana Firestone, and trained well by LeRoy Jolley. The rangy brown filly had been out of the money only once in 18 starts and in that race, the Test at Saratoga, she was giving away weight.
Proud Delta was the third favorite in the Beldame, having won five stakes in the first five months of 1976. But in her three races since her last victory on May 29, she appeared to be lackluster. No one recalled the Suffolk County Handicap of 1975, and understandably so. It was run on a Sunday in the midst of a flurry of racing activity—Forego was winning the Woodward Stakes, Honest Pleasure the Cowdin and Optimistic Gal was galloping off with the Frizette. If that wasn't enough to divert attention from Proud Delta's win, Emperor Hirohito turned up at a Jets game and the baseball playoffs were in progress.
The Suffolk County was Proud Delta's first stakes win and her last victory in the colors of Mrs. Ada L. Rice's Danada Farms. After Dan Rice died early in 1975 his wife decided to sell most of the stable's holdings. Her 145 horses were auctioned off for $3.25 million, Proud Delta contributing a quarter of a million dollars of that, largely on the strength of her Suffolk County triumph. The daughter of Delta Judge-Loving Sister was bought by Mrs. Marion duPont Scott for breeding purposes, but Mrs. Scott also had hopes that Proud Delta might be able to "win herself out" by earning $250,000 in purses before retiring.
Victory in the Beldame did that, bringing Proud Delta's earnings to $258,213, and thus Mrs. Scott's gamble has paid off. The lady knows horses and is an excellent judge of potential. In 1903 she was the first female ever to ride astride a horse in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden and in 1915 she became the first woman astride to win a blue ribbon. For generations she has been one of the main supporters of steeplechase racing. In the 1930s she bought two jumpers from owner Walter Salmon and took her first big gamble. One of the horses was Annapolis, the other Battleship. Annapolis became her first stakes winner and an outstanding steeplechase sire.